One reason I enjoy writing is because I enjoy sharing stories that amaze me, and I hope amaze you.
Recently, Sybren and I watched The Count of Monte Cristo. We watched the original 1934 version, then the 2002 version with Jim Caviezel. We loved this adventure of a man struggling to right the injustices by those who betrayed him. Isn’t it wonderful to be in your sixties and find something that amazes you? Sybren was so impressed that he wanted to read Alexandre Dumas’s book. So, I ordered a 1994 translation (it was originally written in French). It arrived—all 1250 pages!
But it’s in that vein of thought that I want to tell you the story of a Texan you may have never heard of.
Mildred Jefferson is an African American woman who was born in Pittsburgh in 1926, in the Piney Woods of east Texas.
She attended school in Carthage. Her father, Guthrie Jefferson, was a Methodist minister and her mother was a schoolteacher. In those days, children were taught to “declaim” their lessons, i.e., speak forcefully and eloquently. Those public-speaking skills would serve Mildred well throughout her life. By the time she was seven, she knew she wanted to be a doctor.
As a child, Mildred used to follow the local doctor around in his buggy. She would ride with him from house to house and ask him questions. Once she said, “I think I want to be a doctor just like you.”
He laughed, “If you want to do that, you just go right ahead.”
Mildred graduated from high school at age 15. She received her master’s in biology from Tufts University at age 18, and she was the first Black woman to be admitted to Harvard Medical School. When she graduated, she became the first woman to have a surgical internship at Boston City Hospital and then she became the first female doctor at Boston University Medical Center. These accomplishments are in themselves remarkable, but that’s not why Dr. Jefferson should be remembered.
In 1970, the American Medical Association declared that it was ethical for doctors to perform abortions in whatever state it was legal to do so. Dr. Jefferson took issue with this position, which was at odds with the Hippocratic Oath. The original oath states in part, “I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgment, and I will do no harm or injustice to them. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly, I will not give to a woman anything to cause abortion.”
Because her own medical association had departed from the basic tenets to do no harm and did not support the right to life, she founded the Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
It became her personal mission to speak up for the right to life. She said, “As a physician, a citizen, and a woman, I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have a right to live. Every moment of life from the time of fertilization until natural death is worthy of protection by our laws.”
I found this story about a letter by a former president on the Breakpoint.com website.
“In 1972, a public television station in Boston featured Dr. Jefferson in an episode of a series called “The Advocates.” The program aired nationwide and showcased Dr. Jefferson’s credentials as a physician, as well as her skills as a powerful and winsome speaker who used impeccable logic to argue against abortion. After the broadcast, Dr. Jefferson received several letters, including one written by a rising west coast politician. It read:
‘‘Yours was the most clear-cut exposition on this problem (abortion) that I have ever heard. . .. Several years ago, I was faced with the issue of whether to sign a California abortion bill. . .. I must confess to never having given the matter of abortion any serious thought until that time. No other issue since I have been in office has caused me to do so much study and soul-searching… I wish I could have heard your views before our legislation was passed. You made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of a human life. I’m grateful to you.”’
The author was Ronald Reagan.
By 1975, Dr. Jefferson was president of the National Right to Life Association. She travelled extensively across the country. Her gifts of oratory, her love of people, her impeccable logic endeared her to her followers.
She testified in Congress in 1981 saying, “With the obstetrician and mother becoming the worst enemy of the child and the pediatrician becoming the assassin for the family, the state must be enabled to protect the child born and unborn.”
Dr. Jefferson married but never had children. Interestingly, she never drove a car or took public transportation. The way I learned about Dr. Jefferson was from the founder of Camp Constitution, Hal Shurtleff, who was one of her drivers. He met her through a mutual acquaintance and began driving her to speaking events. They became friends and remained so until she passed away in 2010 at the age of eighty-four.
Carthage now has a special plaque and bust of Mildred Jefferson near the county courthouse which was erected in 2018. Scholarships are awarded in her memory annually.
How many people now have been born and lived and have themselves given life because of Dr. Mildred Jefferson?
Dr. Jefferson became a physician to save lives and became an activist to speak for humankind. She said, “The cause for the Right to Life is not because of a special few, but is the cause of every man, woman, and child who cares not only about his own family, but the whole family of man.”
( The above article originally appeared in the Brenham Banner Press in Washington County Texas) Copyrighted #40
(This short video was possibly Dr. Jefferson’s last speaking engagement July 2010 at Camp Constitution’s 2nd Annual Family Camp in Rindge, NH)